Aligning fuel poverty and net zero aspirations

14 November 2019 Jon Ducker

Earlier this year, the Government legislated net-zero targets for the UK, targeting net zero by 2050; in order to achieve this aim and help alleviate homes from fuel poverty, policies on energy and energy efficiency for new and existing buildings must be aligned. Targets need to be matched against actionable plans and policies, focusing first and foremost on the more challenging areas of the building stock that are currently big contributors towards climate change, expensive to heat and affecting the health and lives of those who occupy them.

Given that around 40% of carbon emissions are attributable to the use of buildings, improving the thermal efficiency of the 29 million existing homes across the UK is critical to achieving these targets. Our homes and the buildings we work in require urgent attention.

Our buildings also have a direct impact on the lives of those inhabiting them, in some cases pulling people into fuel poverty or exposing them to health risk. The average 41,000 cold-related deaths in the country is an obvious cause for concern given that many of these cases could have been prevented through improvements to the thermal performance of the housing stock. Recent research by RAND[i] has shown that 26 million children across Europe live in damp, cold, dark or noisy homes which places them at “higher risk of experiencing health problems” such as asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia; this equates to one in three European children. We urgently need to act to reduce the incidence of people living in these unhealthy homes and conditions.

The Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently consulted on England’s Fuel Poverty Strategy and it was satisfying to see  proposals aligning that policy with the recent net zero commitments.

The fuel poverty strategy consultation proposed amending the method used to assess fuel poverty to a ‘Low-Income Low Energy Efficiency Metric’, which should help to reduce the churn that we have previously seen with the definition used today. It is hoped that this will help to better target policy at those most at risk and provide better support through government programmes, such as the Energy Company Obligation (ECO).

The Fuel Poverty Strategy contains a series of milestone targets, which aim to ensure that as many fuel poor households, as reasonably practicable, are improved to a minimum energy efficiency rating of Band C by the end of 2030, with an interim target of Band E by 2020 and Band D by 2025. These targets could provide certainty for industry to invest in new solutions which both reduce energy bills and carbon emissions. It will also allow households and those working with the fuel poor to plan retrofits to achieve the milestones, reducing the need to return to a property multiple times.

Without visible long-term standards and a clear trajectory, we will not see the investment required to meet the fuel poverty commitments or the net zero targets.

A holistic approach to retrofit planning

It is important that works to improve our buildings are better tailored, appropriate and lead to better, more efficient, healthier buildings with intervention works undertaken to an overall much better quality standard.

The concept of a ‘building passport’ including a customised roadmap towards deep renovation for each building has been discussed across Industry for a few years now (and is gaining traction across Europe).  
Whilst Energy Performance Certificates allow for an assessment of comparative energy performance, this is not in and of itself a sufficient driver for retrofit. An EPC’s recommendations aren’t particularly tailored to the property, focusing just on energy efficiency and the recommendations can even sometimes be inappropriate, when considering the intricacies of a particular building; a bespoke plan for renovation that looks at all aspects of a renovation and building improvement is needed to supplement the benchmarked energy performance.

A building passport could combine a longer-term (15 or 20 years plus) step-by-step renovation roadmap for a specific building (resulting from an on-site assessment of the building, its condition and suitability), together with a repository of all building-related information (e.g. building plans, constraints, energy consumption and production, executed and proposed maintenance works and full information about the building construction, servicing and any previous works undertaken); taken as a whole, this might allow for a series of more tailored retrofit interventions.

The importance of assessment and design, together with the need for a medium-term retrofit plan is included in the new PAS 2035:2019 Retrofitting dwellings for improved energy efficiency. Specification and guidance. Specification for the installation of energy efficiency measures in existing dwellings and insulation in residential park homes’, the PAS is aimed at retrofit generally, but primarily is a requirement for ECO purposes; this is a good start, but it needs to have a much greater reach. A package of information about each building, together with a longer term retrofit plan needs to be a common requirement across all buildings.

Considering homes holistically, by which I mean assessing the state of repair and the interactions between thermal efficiency, heating systems and ventilation, as well as considering a building is occupied and its relationship with its surroundings, is key to ensuring that health is not negatively impacted, and that energy bills are affordable.
To date policy has largely encouraged single measures in fuel poor homes, without necessarily considering anything that doesn’t directly result in some sort of payback from reduced energy demand.
The Fuel Poverty for England consultation proposed a revised, worst-first principle, which should provide an opportunity to encourage a whole house approach to retrofit, rather than the single measure approach taken in ECO currently. The consultation also introduced the sustainability principle which is greatly welcomed. Achieving our net-zero aspirations and our fuel poverty targets must be and can be aligned. It is essential that future policies do not contradict each other, or we risk jeopardizing meeting one to achieve another. Energy efficiency is central to both net zero and fuel poverty targets and policy should take a fabric first approach to retrofit and tackling fuel poverty to ensure long term carbon and energy demand reductions, whilst also considering the needs of the building as a whole, as well as its occupants.
Rightly so, the Committee on Climate Change and others have made the case for the retrofitting of existing homes to become a national infrastructure priority. As we strive towards the net zero targets, buildings will play a significant role and policymakers, businesses, house builders and consumers alike will come to expect better standards of energy efficiency. It goes without saying that the energy transition should be fair and smooth in order to reduce the impact on consumers, but when it comes to buildings, we must go further than that and ensure that measures are realised for all the right reasons. The revised Fuel Poverty Strategy is an essential step towards aligning these objectives and this joined up approach should be commended.